The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins (1972)
Elmore Leonard, in his introduction to the 1995 Owl Books edition, calls FoEC the “best crime novel ever written.” I don’t know if it’s the best ever written, but it certainly qualifies as top five for me.
The qualities that make the book great, vivid characterization, spare but evocative scene-setting, and, above all the dialog, are evident from the start:
Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns. “I can get your pieces probably by tomorrow night. I can get you probably, six pieces. Tomorrow night. In a week or so, maybe ten days, another dozen. I got a guy coming in with at least ten of them but I already talk to another guy about four of them and he’s, you know, expecting them. He’s got something to do. So, six tomorrow night. Another dozen in a week.
The stocky man sat across from Jackie Brown and allowed his coffee to go cold. “I don’t know as I like that,” he said. “I don’t know as I like buying stuff from the same lot as somebody else….
These, the book’s opening lines, set a tone and create a mood that Higgins sustains to the novel’s conclusion.
Note, as does Leonard, how the author jumps immediately into the scene with none of the usual set-up or fuss. Neither at the beginning nor later on does Higgins provide such details as the name of the restaurant, the nature of its cuisine, whether a patron seats himself or waits for a hostess. Outside the dialog, in a chapter that runs 2133 words, there are by my count, three sentences and two phrases—52 words—that qualify as description. We won’t return to this place. 52 well-chosen words are all we need. I like these: “The crippled man hawked Records, annoying people by crying at them from his skate-wheeled dolly.”
The stocky man sitting across from Jackie Brown is, of course, Eddie Coyle, an overweight, middle-aged hood, who operates on the fringes of the Boston mob. Coyle, after getting his guns from Jackie Brown, makes a series of unfortunate choices, whereupon certain of his so-called friends walk him into the darkness. The reader can’t look away.
Aspiring crime novelists, seeking to use FoEC as a model, should proceed with caution. The modern reader expects a likeable protagonist or at least a likeable secondary character with whom to identify. Coyle engenders sympathy from time to time, but—as is the case with every one of the principle characters in FoEC—you wouldn’t want him for a pal.
The modern reader also expects to know the thoughts and feelings of principle characters. Usually, with a book written in the third person, thoughts and feelings are rendered through interior monologue or, more generally, through passages written in close-third person. With a single minor exception, Eddie Coyle and his friends, tough guys one and all, keep their thoughts and feelings locked away.
Higgins in his relatively short life—he died November 7, 1999, at the age of 59—published thirty books, most of them crime novels. I eagerly sought out and read the first few after FoEC and was increasingly disappointed. The scenes in the later books might be as vividly scabrous but the dialog, while still convincingly rendered in Boston-area dialect, began to unfold at oratorical length. It seemed that Higgins, after the huge success of his first book, might have shrugged off editorial advice, much to his detriment.
Even so. After toiling as an attorney in early life, Higgins’ writing kept him in steaks and scotch for nearly thirty years, and he authored one of the all-time crime classics. (A worthwhile film adaption, released in 1973 and now available in the Criterion Collection, was directed by Peter Yates and stars Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle.) A writer might seem greedy if he were to ask for more.